Out of the Box Theatre Co.’s production of Ryan Scott Oliver’s ‘35 MM’ is a well-executed production of a less-than-great play. The virtues and positives can mostly be credited to the company and their accompanying band, and the weaknesses pretty much all to the play itself. For those planning to go, it’s still worth seeing for how the company handles a play with such an interesting premise, and for the “what is a musical?” thought provocation it inspires, but expect some discomposure along the way.
On paper, ‘35 MM’ sounds great. A musical review of songs based on still images derived from the composer’s photographer friend, it’s a unique twist on the musical format. Rather than having an overarching narrative, it feels like either a collection of one-song plays, or like numerous pieces pulled from other musicals made incarnate and viewed through a View-Master. Cumulatively, the songs make up a play that’s ‘about’ representation, visualization, and self-expression; but it is determinedly not ‘about’ anything else. Rather, ‘35 MM’ is an open-ended piece, asking that audiences make what they will (or won’t) of the songs and images.
The ensemble cast—Sophie Holt, Tad Murroughs, Shannon Saleh, Christopher Short, Willie Simpson, Kelly Sparrman, and Zachary Thompson—shines. Each number is packed with ample gusto and sparkle. The cast delivers the songs with such infectious zeal that you can’t help but feel that magic little contact high of an audience in the presence of fully committed performers. The band, as well, is tight, lending a cabaret lounge cool to the cocktail-accented Center Stage, and adding a refreshing alt-rock vibe that’s not often heard in musical theater.
The multiple strengths of the cast, band, and crew are muddled by the lackluster quality of the images of photographer Matthew Murphy, whose pictorial pieces are projected behind the actors as a centerpiece. The pictures are mostly high-end clipart or abstract stock photos, concrete but bland and open-ended enough to project a story upon. The amount of emotion invested in the performances seemed disproportionate to the shallow renderings of emotion depicted by the images. Perhaps Out Of The Box could have elucidated the pictures further with costume changes, but it seems the songs are supposed to be presented as matter-of-fact and unadorned, in a coffee shop open mic sort of way. The playwright’s decision to restrict his songs to these images, and not to allow theater companies the freedom to choose their own, is understandable as an act of self-containment, but limiting—particularly since images, like trends, fade.
More puzzling is the way in which the play tries to defend itself against interpretation or criticism of its format when the musical is by nature interpretive, derived from open-ended depictions. “All we’re asking is for you to see,” the ensemble sings in “Why Must We Tell Them Why,” with lyrics that proclaim self-evidence and category-resistance: “Why must we justify?” and “Who’s to say what it ought to be? It is what it is and it is what it’s got to be.” This and other songs command we open our eyes to the subversive truth before us, as if to imply a depth and ambiguity that I just didn’t find in these images, which felt frustratingly two-dimensional given the three-dimensional performances—and yet it’s the pictures that are put on a pedestal.
If creators Oliver and Murphy gave theater companies like Out of the Box the freedom to use their own images, ‘35 MM’ could be a much more appealing and more honestly open-ended deconstruction of the musical. But as is, it sends mixed signals, some of which are defiantly self-declarative while others remain insecurely resistant to interaction. Sure, you don’t need an artist statement (they’re often bad ideas), but you do need an occasion for bringing these lackluster images to life on a stage. Somehow, ‘It is what it is’ just isn’t sufficient.